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Arcbazar Brings architecture to the people

Arcbazar Brings Architecture To The People

After withering welcome, design crowd-sourcing site is winning fans, converts and investors


by ROB McMANAMY | Dec 14, 2015

Chronicling Wall Street's epic nosedive in late 2008, the new holiday film The Big Short will hit theaters across America next week. But for many, the effects of that dropkick to the world's economic gut are still being felt long after the global recession is said to have ended. One of the many professions hit hard at the time was architecture. But in Boston, that crisis appears to have spawned an unlikely renaissance that already is disrupting design and construction well beyond New England.

Great disruptor As

Great disruptor As

"Nationally, 90,000 architects lost their jobs as a result of the Great Recession," recalls Dr. Imdat As, a Turkish-American architect, educator and entrepreneur with degrees from both M.I.T. and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. "I had several friends who were laid off."

Although As, himself, says he was "very happy" at a boutique design firm in Cambridge MA, he and his restless, talented friends would often stay up late, chat over shared meals, and invariably hold impromptu weekend brainstorming sessions on the state of the built environment and how to improve their professional prospects. The group soon had an epiphany. 

Maybe it was the identical numbers that triggered the idea, but As and friends discovered with cursory research that some 90% of all construction projects were designed and built without the benefit of actual architects. The projects were seen as just too small to engage the expensive professional advice of a licensed architect. But 90,000 of those folks had just lost their jobs.

Hello-o-o!  Opportunity, it seemed, was just pounding at the door...

"We did the math and realized that all these little projects -- i.e. closet expansions, modest kitchen remodels, small business build-outs -- together, they were worth more than $170 billion, but they never see the light of an architect's desk," explains As. "So, our thought was, 'How do we get design to everybody who wants it?'"

With emerging technology already enabling online international collaboration on an unprecedented scale, the group realized that the once-absurd notion of holding an international design competition to remodel your bedroom was now actually doable. So, in 2010, after consulting with enthusiastic faculty advisors at Harvard, As and five friends launched, "with some money, some sweat and even some tears," he says. "The name is inspired by the idea of a bazaar for architecture – a vibrant space for an exchange and negotiation of design services."

  • Bet you have more questions. (We sure did.) Here's the Arcbazar FAQ page.

Tears really started flowing after the architecture establishment, the artsy old guard, got wind of what Arcbazar was trying to do. Many made the snap judgment that "crowdsourcing design" was even worse than out-sourcing design services to Third World competitors. After all, wouldn't these independent, overseas free agents charge just pennies on the dollar and devalue hard-won professional pricing?

"Right out of the gate, in January 2011, DWELL magazine said we were 'the worst thing to happen to architecture since the start of the internet," recalls As. "But today, DWELL CEO Michela O'Connor Abrams sits on our board of directors!"

Homepage, Dec. 14: Typical Monday morning project roll call, ranging from $250 to $1,000. For the latest, click here. Below, recent competitions involved jobs in India, Arizona, and Switzerland, won by two Americans and an Egyptian.

Homepage, Dec. 14: Typical Monday morning project roll call, ranging from $250 to $1,000. For the latest, click here. Below, recent competitions involved jobs in India, Arizona, and Switzerland, won by two Americans and an Egyptian.

For its part, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) was similarly wary of Arcbazar, devoting two paragraphs to the effects of its "disruptive crowdsourcing" in the 2014 AIA Foresight Report. Many in the profession also expressed concern, unsure what to make of the first-of-its-kind idea.

"On the one hand, Arcbazar seems to be driving down the earnings of talented designers, and could produce some rather suspect designs," wrote The Orange County Register in 2014. "On the other, it offers clients with low budgets access to an international group of designers, when they previously couldn't afford one at all."

Tiny birds, Growing flock

And those clients have continued to flock to the site. To date, it has facilitated design competitions for roughly 5,000 projects worldwide, about 90% of which are in the U.S. The minimum allowable award is $250, but the average award is about $800, with no maximum. The biggest contract so far has been $7,500 for a law office building in Seattle, notes As. Each project draws about a dozen submissions and the competitions, themselves, usually run for 31 days.

"It's been very exciting for us to become facilitators here who can make design-conscious clients happy while also putting food on the table for our peers, young designers and architects," says As. And while there is no obligation for clients to hire the winner of their specific design competitions, "we have found that so far, 55% of them continue to work together." 

Today, though the world economic recession has passed, Arcbazar has no plans to revert to business as usual. On the contrary, the crowdsourcing platform appears to be doubling down on its business model. Last month, San Francisco-based Brian Totty, a former Groupon executive and fellow MIT and Harvard alum, invested in both Arcbazar and, a tech company performing consumer-based photogrammetry and web-based virtual reality for interior spaces.

"We are planning to collaborate with insidemaps on our client onboarding process for surveying spaces with their easy-to-use photogrammetry," says As. "We also recently received a major investment from Forum8, a Tokyo-based AEC tech firm that's been called 'the Autodesk of Japan'. So, we will also be integrating their unique 3D real-time simulation and urban modeling software and environmental assessment tools into our platform very soon, too."

So next year already is shaping up to be even busier for As and company. In fact, next spring look for Arcbazar to team with Forum8 and education nonprofit GreenApple Campus here at BuiltWorlds for a fun crowdsourcing event to develop designs for the upcoming Obama Presidential Library.

Hmm, seems only right that a facility honoring a U.S. president from Illinois may very well end up being designed “of the people" and "for the people.”

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